E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

WA Explainer: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why is the government trying to change it?

Words by:
June 14, 2022

Many people thought (or hoped) that the need to keep up with Brexit stopped in 2019. As the WA Investor Services team and other seasoned Westminster watchers will tell you, Brexit has been bubbling under the surface since the initial deal was signed, with the UK and EU locked in ongoing, and not entirely productive, negotiations ever since.

Now, after months of hinting at the need for more dramatic action to break the negotiating deadlock, the government has published the highly controversial Protocol Bill, which it argues will solve some of the issues that the current Brexit deal has created in Northern Ireland.

The Bill has huge consequences for UK-EU relations, the stability of power sharing in Northern Ireland and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own political fortunes. With all that in mind, we’ve put together an explainer of the position of the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, what the Bill seeks to change, and what it will mean for both sides in the future.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the part of the Brexit deal that sets out special customs and regulatory arrangements for Northern Ireland in light of its land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU country. Both sides agreed that avoiding a ‘hard border’ between the Republic and Northern Ireland was a key priority. The eventual compromise was to create a customs border in the Irish Sea, rather than on the island of Ireland. Goods crossing into Northern Ireland are checked as though they are entering the European Union. Northern Ireland must, in certain areas, follow the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In return, both sides agreed that Northern Ireland businesses would have access to both UK and EU markets without the need for further checks. This arrangement appears to have resulted in economic benefits for Northern Ireland. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the only regions in the UK to have seen GDP recover to pre-pandemic levels are Northern Ireland and London, though Northern Ireland recorded the largest drop in GVA of any region in Q1 2022.

The current terms of the Protocol are strongly opposed by Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, who argue that the presence of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK undermines the union. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is now refusing to form a new power-sharing government in Northern Ireland until a solution to its concerns is found. Despite this, the Protocol is not universally opposed in Northern Ireland. On 13 June, 52 out of 90 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly wrote to Boris Johnson to “reject in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new protocol legislation”. The letter is an indication that the government’s proposals do not guarantee an end to Brexit-related tensions in Northern Ireland.

What is the government trying to change?

The government is arguing that the current agreement undermines the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and creates additional, unnecessary bureaucracy for businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Protecting the Agreement is key to the government’s reasoning for introducing the Bill. In a summary of its legal position on the protocol, the government said it is relying on the “doctrine of necessity,” which it argues would “lawfully justify non-performance of international obligations” because of Northern Ireland’s “genuinely exceptional situation.”

The Bill proposes to override some parts of the protocol unilaterally. Under its proposals:

  • Goods staying in Northern Ireland would travel through a new ‘green channel’ with no customs checks, while those intended for the EU would go through a ‘red channel’ that would be subject to EU border checks.
  • The jurisdiction of the ECJ in Northern Ireland would end, as well as end the EU’s control over VAT and state aid laws, all of which are strongly opposed by pro-Brexit MPs.
  • A new dual regulatory regime would be established giving businesses a choice on whether to place goods on the market in Northern Ireland under either UK or EU rules.

Can the government secure the changes it wants?

Johnson has been criticised by opposition parties and some Conservative MPs for seeking to override a deal he only agreed to in 2019. The UK government has argued that the deal has had “unforeseen consequences”, particularly for the stability of the Good Friday Agreement. Some MPs are also concerned about the legality of the Bill. Others are concerned that the UK’s actions will undermine its international standing, particularly as it still seeks to negotiate trade deals with major developed and emerging economies.

As a result of these concerns, the Bill will face a challenging journey through Parliament before it can become law. This process is likely to take months. It is extremely likely that members of the House of Lords and MPs will seek at least to amend the Bill to water down some of the proposals.

The key political test for Johnson, however, will be whether he faces a significant rebellion from his own backbenchers. The European Research Group (ERG) of pro-Brexit MPs have also yet to give the Bill their backing and plan to scrutinise the Bill line by line before announcing how they will vote. It is likely that at least some of the One Nation group of Conservatives will vote against the Bill over concerns that it breaks international law, but they will not have enough votes to defeat the Bill alone. If a broader coalition within the party chooses to rebel on the issue, and Labour chooses to vote against the Bill, there is a risk it could be defeated. However, the size of Johnson’s majority and the lack of organised opposition to Johnson or the Bill itself within the Conservative Party make a rebellion of the necessary size difficult to achieve.

What is the likely response of the EU?

The EU is strongly opposed to the UK’s current action and has stated that there will be serious consequences if the UK moves to change the Protocol unilaterally. In the short term, expect the EU to put forward revised proposals of its own to try to continue dialogue between the two sides. Continuing negotiations are supported by the UK and EU, and therefore we are likely to see ongoing talks take place even while the UK government seeks to pass the Protocol Bill.

The European Commission is also expected to relaunch legal action against the UK, which was previously paused to allow for negotiations between the UK and EU over the Protocol to continue. The EU argues that the UK has already failed to implement large parts of the existing Brexit deal, breaching the terms of the agreement. This process is unlikely to move quickly, but provides the EU with an option of escalating its response.

The EU’s response is likely to be limited to continuing negotiations and its legal proceedings for now, but a significant escalation can be expected in the event the Bill passes in its current form. The EU has been clear that it will trigger a full-blown trade war with the UK — something neither Johnson nor his chancellor Rishi Sunak wants in the middle of the cost-of-living crisis. Compromise remains in the interests of both parties, so the government will hope that the Bill will push the EU into changing its position, rather than expecting the Bill to pass in its current form.

Where do we go from here?

The government has sought to play down the scope of the Bill, with Boris Johnson labelling its proposals as “a trivial set of adjustments”. In reality, Johnson sought a more moderate version of the Bill after Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid raised concerns about the consequences of the original, more hardline version of the Bill proposed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. However, fresh from a bruising vote of confidence in which 41% of his party unsuccessfully tried to unseat him, Johnson has been forced to move back closer to the original proposals tabled by Truss. Johnson’s changing position is indicative of the political position he finds himself in. Weakened by the vote, Johnson will now be more vulnerable to the views of his own backbench MPs, making government U-turns – and inconsistent policymaking driven by their views – more likely.

The proposals are also extremely likely to have diplomatic consequences. The EU has warned that the Bill undermines trust between the two sides and makes finding a compromise harder. US President Biden has also warned that the UK’s actions make it less likely that a UK-US trade deal can be agreed. Although the UK’s actions are likely to cool UK-US relations, a trade deal was already unlikely, with lead UK negotiator Crawford Falconer admitting in May 2022 that negotiations had “stalled”.

Johnson is likely to find it extremely difficult to compromise on the Bill to break the impasse with the EU while retaining the support of pro-Brexit backbenchers. This, rather than legal challenges at home or in the EU, is likely to be the real flashpoint of the legislation. Johnson risks finding himself in the same position as former Prime Minister Theresa May, caught between the demands of the party and the need for a workable solution with the EU. The Bill begins the process of establishing whether he can find the solution Mrs May could not to the question of the Northern Ireland Border,  but is unlikely to settle it.

To discuss the government’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol, please email Lizzy Cryar on

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